Across the nation excitement is building for automatic voter registration, a groundbreaking reform that puts the onus on the government to register eligible citizens to vote when they do business at state agencies. Every governor presented with automatic registration legislation has signed it into law -- until now.
On Monday, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the Democracy Act -- preventing New Jersey from becoming the third state, after Oregon and California, to adopt automatic registration in 2015. The Democracy Act also would have given voters the opportunity to register and update their information online, and created two weeks of in-person early voting, among other reforms. Together, they would have boosted registration rates, cleaned up the rolls, saved money, and made voting more convenient.
With turnout at record-low rates in 2014, every state should seriously consider ways to make registration more convenient and accurate. New Jersey is no exception. Last year, just 30.4 percent of eligible voters turned out, placing the Garden State among the 10 worst-performing states for voter participation. And in last week's election, preliminary turnout analysis by Monmouth University's Polling Institute is pointing toward a new state general-election low of 22 percent or less.
That makes Monday's veto especially counterproductive. Automatic registration in particular would help eliminate the registration barriers that lead to low participation.
The new system makes two transformative changes to voter registration. First, eligible citizens who interact with government agencies are registered to vote unless they "opt out." Second, agencies transfer voter-registration information electronically to election officials. Voters are less likely to be disenfranchised due to registration errors, because the state takes on the burden of getting people on the rolls, but eliminates mistakes caused by paper registration.
The reform also encourages many voters to sign up for the first time, removing an important hurdle to participation. New Jersey's plan would have automatically registered eligible citizens with records at the state's motor vehicle agencies, but other reliable government databases can and should be used so that all of eligible citizens are signed up.
Online registration and early voting, two other banner reforms included in the Democracy Act, would only compound these benefits. Online voter registration would further clean up the rolls by reducing data entry errors and reliance on illegible forms. And early voting, when offered at a sufficient number of sites, can boost turnout, and is particularly helpful to voters when offered during evening and weekend hours.
With his Monday veto Christie issued a statement claiming that the legislation would be a waste of "hard-earned tax dollars" and implying it would have enabled fraud. However, these reforms would actually reduce the opportunities for fraud by keeping voter rolls updated and accurate. Moreover, as a new Brennan Center report extensively documents, electronic and online registration systems would save taxpayer money.
That's a major reason these and similar ideas in other states increasingly enjoy bipartisan support. They offer something for everyone: cleaner rolls, increased access to the ballot, and cost savings. Republicans ranging from Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to Ben Ginsberg, Mitt Romney's campaign counsel, have come out in favor of various voting system upgrades.
New Jersey's legislators should think hard about how the Garden State can still join the bipartisan movement to modernize voting.
And if Christie wants his constituents to vote, as he exhorted them to last Tuesday on Twitter, making registration records more accurate and voting more convenient are some great ways to ensure that more New Jersey voters will heed his call next time.
Adam Gitlin is Counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.